Cubs

Cubs regroup with much-needed win and target on their backs

Cubs regroup with much-needed win and target on their backs

PITTSBURGH — The mime playing air guitar would have no comment. Anything less than a 162-win pace probably would have disappointed some fawning media members. And Donald Trump is so delusional and consistently wrong that he still probably thinks ownership is doing a “rotten job.”

But all the Cubs stationed at Camp Joe Maddon in Arizona would have taken this heading into the All-Star break: 53 wins and a seven-game lead in the National League Central.

The Cubs still need a vacation after all the karaoke jams, zoo animals, “Embrace The Target” sloganeering and a 24-games-in-24-days endurance test that showed this team won’t get an automatic bid into the playoffs.

“We did talk about it in spring training, the importance of getting off to a good start, and we did,” Maddon said before Sunday’s 6-5 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. “We have, I think, more than stubbed our toe. We probably sprained our toe. We want to avoid that, but it happens to a lot of teams. This is our time to understand adversity and how to fight through it.

“We’ll come out of it on the other side better for it.”

The Texas Rangers and New York Mets will be waiting after the All-Star break, and a few days chilling by the pool won’t magically cure the Cubs before they regroup at Wrigley Field. But this team needed a win to snap a five-game losing streak and avoid the sweep that would have left the resilient Pirates (46-43) only 5 1/2 games out in what’s become a much tighter three-team race with the second-place St. Louis Cardinals.

“We’re aware,” said Anthony Rizzo, who went 4-for-5 on Sunday afternoon after almost hitting for the cycle on Saturday night. “You try not to look at it, but you know where you’re at (in the standings). No one stresses about it.

“This is what it is: Every game now in the NL Central, especially versus the Cardinals and Pirates, is a playoff game from here on out. We set ourselves up to be in a good position the second half to do what we want to do.”

That revolves around pitching, and the Cubs have gone 0-for-10 in quality starts in July. A recharged lineup gave John Lackey a two-run lead before he threw his first pitch Sunday and a 5-4 lead by the fourth inning, yet the veteran pitcher still labored through a no-decision and walked off the mound with two runners on and no outs in the seventh.

This three-game series wasn’t pretty for a Cubs team that will send seven players to the All-Star Game. The pitching staff gave up 26 runs, the defense committed five errors, a young team made multiple mental mistakes and the Pirates beat Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and $155 million lefty Jon Lester.

“Our whole staff kind of feels that (pressure),” Arrieta said. “We’ve been in kind of a lull for the past two weeks. If our guys are healthy — which we are, as far as the staff is concerned — I like our ability to go out there and pitch better.

“There are times where the guy on the other side is going to beat us on the mound. Our offense will have those nights. But if we get our guys back in the second half — and keep swinging it — we’ll be just fine.”

The Cubs raced out to a 25-6 start with dominant pitching and contributions up and down the lineup and all over the roster. The offense generated 15 hits in Game 88, with Matt Szczur delivering a pinch-hit double in the eighth inning and scoring the go-ahead run from second on Kris Bryant’s two-out line drive into left field.

“It’s nice to go into the All-Star break with a little less stress,” Bryant said. “But I think if you told us at the beginning of the year we would be in this position, any of us would take it.”

An under-siege bullpen got the last nine outs, with Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards Jr. and Hector Rondon (14th save) shutting down the Pirates at a time when Maddon’s had trouble figuring out which buttons to push.

Maddon’s endless array of “Try Not To Suck” T-shirts don’t seem quite as fresh when the Cubs are losing so much ground and dropping series to playoff contenders like the Washington Nationals, Miami Marlins, Cardinals, Mets and Pirates within the last month.

But this is exactly what the Cubs asked for, painting the bull’s-eye on their chest.

“We’ve responded really well,” Maddon said, wearing his “Embrace The Target” T-shirt. “More recently, we’ve done it with less than our normal group. I do believe fatigue entered into the equation right now, which happens to everybody. But it got exceptionally difficult now with a lot of young guys playing often. Our starters just hit a little bit of a wall.

“And everybody’s coming after us hard, man. Everybody is — and I love it.”

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Bold predictions for the Cubs offseason

With the MLB offseason about to kick off, we run down the boldest predictions for the Cubs winter from around the NBC Sports Chicago Cubs content team. Topics include where Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will sign, how much money they’ll get, what the Cardinals will do this winter, Cubs offseason trades and how Theo Epstein’s front office may add to the pitching staff.

 

One topic we could all agree on was David Ross' potential as Cubs bench coach if the incumbent Brandon Hyde ends up taking a job as manager for another team around the league.

 

Listen to the entire podcast here and check out all of our bold predictions below:

 

 

David Kaplan

 

—Anthony Rizzo and his new wife, Emily, will adopt Manny Machado, change his last name and see Manny Rizzo playing third base for the 2019 Cubs.

—Because of the Rizzo move, the Cubs will move Kris Bryant to a full-time outfielder.

—The Cubs will trade away Jose Quintana and sign Patrick Corbin.

—The Cubs will sign a pair of former Indians relievers for the back end of the bullpen in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

—The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber to the Royals for Whit Merrifield, who will start 155 games in the leadoff spot in the order.

—Joe Maddon will be a lot more consistent with the Cubs' lineup and batting order all season.

 

Kelly Crull

 

—Anthony and Emily Rizzo will receive more wedding gifts from Cubs fans than Kris and Jessica Bryan received.

—Anthony Rizzo will train this offseason so he will be able to sing — or play the piano — for the National Anthem at Wrigley in 2019.

—The Cubs will have no money left to remodel the media room at Wrigley Field.

 

Luke Stuckmeyer

 

—The Captain Morgan Club at Wrigley Field is going to be replaced by Kap's Kryo & Keto Korner.

—The Cubs will finally find a solution to the leadoff hitter issue.

 

Tony Andracki

 

—The Cubs sign Bryce Harper for less than $250 million. (He follows 23 people on Twitter)
—Manny Machado does not get a contract for more than $250 million, either.
—The Cardinals will sign Craig Kimbrel and either Machado or Josh Donaldson to play 3B. 

 

Rationale: St. Louis could really use the bat and closer and they have a sense of urgency in the division this winter we haven't seen from them in at least a decade. The Cubs and Brewers have clearly been better for two seasons now and look to have a better chance at contending than the Cardinals in 2019, as well. That can't be sitting well with the "Best Fans in Baseball." 

 

Jeff Nelson, producer

 

—The Cubs will trade 2 of the following players:  Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr.

—The Cardinals will sign Manny Machado to play third base.

—Because of construction delays, the visitors’ clubhouse will not be ready for the home opener, forcing the Pirates to dress at their hotel and come to the ballpark in full uniform.

Mike Piff, social media manager

—Cubs sign Nick Markakis.
—Cubs sign Tyson Ross.

Eric Strobel, producer

—The Cubs 2019 saves leader is not currently on the roster.

Rationale: We saw what happened to the bullpen in Brandon Morrow's absence; it got the job done by and large, but was not longer truly feared. Deep 'pens are the norm in October now with lockdown relievers being counted on more and more. The front office knows they can't truly entrust that kind of workload to Morrow with his injury history - Theo admitted as much in his end-of-season press conference. While they probably will not make a big splash, a huge focus of the offseason will be to surround Morrow/Strop/Edwards/etc. with as many talented arms as possible. The Cubs could very well enter next season without a designated closer, but if they do, it will not be Brandon Morrow.

Scott Changnon, multi-platform producer

—The Cubs will sign Bryce Harper.

Rationale: "I dunno, maybe."

Nate Poppen, producer

—Cubs sign Andrew McCutchen, plug him into CF and make Almora a 4th OF (or expendable)
—Bryce Harper signs with Yankees.
—Manny Machado signs with Angels.

Matt Buckman, producer

Non-roster prediction: The Cubs will welcome Sammy Sosa back to Wrigley Field. Sammy turns 50 this winter, and fueled by our wonderful documentary on 1998, the Cubs will finally mend their broken bond with Sammy and bring him back to Wrigley.

Roster prediction: The Cubs will trade Kyle Schwarber for a leadoff hitter. Joe has had to get very creative with the top of his order since Dexter Fowler left. Though the front office has downplayed the importance of a lead-off hitter the last two off-seasons, they will look to add one for 2019 so that Joe doesn’t have to be so creative. They won’t have a place to play Schwarber after they sign Harper so they will swap his power for a new “you go, we go” guy. Look at KC or TB as AL teams that need to add power and also have guys who could potentially lead off for the Cubs. Mallex Smith (TB) or Whit Merrifield (KC) would be interesting options.

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

No-brainer: The Cubs should absolutely bring back Jesse Chavez in 2019 bullpen

Should the Cubs bring Jesse Chavez back for the 2019 bullpen?

This question shouldn't have anywhere near the polarizing effect the Daniel Murphy query had earlier this week, and for good reason.

It's hard to find any real downside for the Cubs working Chavez back into the fold next season. 

Sure, he's 35 and he'll turn 36 in August, but Chavez just had far and away the best season of his 11-year career and all signs point to it being legit.

He won't have a 1.15 ERA forever, of course, but he clearly found something with his mechanics that helped lead to the remarkable consistency he showed in a Cubs uniform (4 saves, 4 holds, 1.15 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 42 Ks in 39 IP). 

The Cubs will be looking to add some reinforcements to their bullpen this winter and Chavez fits the bill in many areas.

When asked about how to address the bullpen this winter, Theo Epstein said his front office will be "looking for guys who can throw strikes and execute a gameplan and take the ball and pitch in big spots."

The Cubs have publicly placed an emphasis on "strike-throwers" out of the bullpen over the last two winters now and that is right up Chavez's alley.

He threw 68.5 percent first-pitch strikes while with the Cubs, which would've ranked near the top of the league in 2018, right up there with aces like Miles Mikolas, Clayton Kershaw, Aaron Nola and Justin Verlander. Among all relievers, Chavez ranked 5th in baseball in first-pitch strike percentage in the second half.

Expanding further (since the first pitch isn't the only one that matters): Chavez threw the fourth-most strikes in baseball among all MLB relievers after the All-Star Break. Since the day Chavez put on a Cubs uniform, Philadelphia's Tommy Hunter (70.5 percent) was the only reliever in baseball (minimum 30 innings) to throw a higher percentage of pitches for strikes than Chavez (69.8 percent).

If you want strikes, there's no better reliever on the market right now than Chavez.

He also shouldn't be all that expensive at age 35, even despite the breakout and high level of importance placed upon relievers these days. A similar deal to the one Brian Duensing got last winter - $7 million over 2 years - seems appropriate and would be a steal if Chavez can continue to find even a modicum of the success he had since putting on a Cubs uniform.

Speaking of the Cubs uniform, Chavez reportedly doesn't want to wear another logo in 2019, saying this after the NL Wild-Card Game:

That was an emotional time, but Chavez repeatedly raved about the Cubs clubhouse and culture throughout his time in Chicago and really appreciated the way his teammates made him feel comfortable from Day 1.

When the Cubs first acquired Chavez in that under-the-radar trade, they touted his versatility which has become a valuable asset, especially in today's game where relievers are often asked to pitch multiple innings. If necessary, he could also represent depth for the starting rotation, having made 70 starts over his MLB career. 

Unless there's a surprising market that develops for Chavez, bringing him back to the North Side of Chicago on a 1- or 2-year deal is a no-brainer.